How to Sand Kitchen Cabinets with Confidence

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Last updated: April 19, 2023

Nothing will brighten and liven your kitchen up more than a fresh coat of paint. Painting kitchen cabinets and drawer fronts with a coat of paint will turn your old kitchen into a new kitchen. A part of wood painting is sanding. 

Sanding is smoothing or polishing a surface. There is the easy way to do things and the hard way, which we will avoid unless you want to regret it. Sanding makes the entire surface of wood cabinets even easier for priming and painting. It will also look spectacular as the last thing you want is the the final appearance to have a bump, scratch, crack, or dent.

Therefore, learning how to sand kitchen cabinets is important if you want to do the job right. I will discuss how to do this without making a mess and answer more common questions here. The goal of this article is to sand wood kitchen cabinets with confidence.

Table of Contents

How to sand kitchen cabinets the right way

Sanding removes pieces of wood called sawdust. The sanding dust particles may be hazardous to your eyes, ears, skin, and breathing passageways when in contact. Therefore, wear goggles, gloves, earplugs, a dust mask, a long-sleeve shirt, and pants to protect yourself. 

A good idea is to pick a work area to sand and blanket the location with a damp drop cloth, which cuts down on cleanup while protecting the workspace. I would also separate cabinet doors and fronts from cabinet boxes and hardware and take them to the workstation.

I find it easier to gather the essential materials for this project. A sanding source like sandpaper or an orbital sander is the primary tool. A dust vacuum is perfect for sawdust cleanup; traditional vacuum cleaners will malfunction doing the same.

Other necessary materials are a degreaser, paint stripper, putty knife, wood filler, a sponge, tack cloth, warm water, and cloths. Take all materials to the workstation, and cover the inside of the cabinet with plastic bags.

contractor sanding kitchen cabinets with orbit sander

After the prep work

1Place some degreaser on a damp sponge and scrub the cabinet door and drawer front with it. The degreaser removes grease, dirt, and grime from bare wood. After cleaning the flat areas, grooves, and corners, rinse them off with a damp rag and let them dry. 
2If there is existing paint on wood or laminate cabinets, skip the degreaser and reach for the paint stripper. Follow the instructions for using paint stripper on cabinets and fronts. I would recommend using a putty knife or paint scraper to scrape off the old paint.
3The next step is to fill cracks and holes with filler or wood putty and let it dry.
4Smooth the cabinet or front with a power sander or sandpaper until it is an even surface. Follow the direction of the wood grain and sand on the same path. Use a sanding sponge to sand and smooth cabinet grooves and corners. 
5I would use a dust vacuum to pick up sawdust as I go along for stress-free cleanup. When finished, vacuum the sawdust for the last time and use a tack cloth to pick up the rest. The result is a smooth surface ready for a primer coat and fresh paint.

What happens if you paint cabinets without sanding

The purpose of sanding is to help paint stick to flat surfaces, and sanding is a better adhesion for paint than painting without sanding. If you paint the cabinetry and fronts as is, the finish will look uneven, placing imperfections on full display.

Besides, you are painting over stuck-on dust, dirt, grime, and grease. You are also painting over humps, dents, cracks, and holes. In addition, the paint on cabinet finishes will not be as durable against more dirt, dust, grease, and grime.

A good paint job is free of that gunk. The brush marks are clean, slick, and polished with a new finish. I would not skip this step.

The general idea for painting cabinetry

When you add new paint with a paint brush or paint roller, let the wet paint dry, sand, and paint with a topcoat of paint. Sand that after it dries, and add a topcoat sealer to protect the paint from succumbing to the heat and moisture. Sand that down, and wipe with a tack cloth. 

Once it dries, attach the hardware. Then, remove the plastic covering and attach the cabinet and front to the hinges. Clean the workstation by removing the damp rag and vacuuming the surrounding area.

The best paint type for upper cabinets, drawers, and lower cabinets

For a durable finish, the first step is choosing a suitable paint. Buying a paint and primer combo at paint stores is easy. The best way is to buy paint and primer separately.

While at the store, purchase a small paintbrush, a mini roller, a paint tray, and painter’s tape. The painter’s tape is a pro tip from experts to ensure the paint stays within the lines. Since some store associates work on a small commission, you could ask them what high-quality paint is best for cabinetry, but knowing this beforehand is better.

The paints suitable for the kitchen are oil-based paint with alkyd material. The material detail is significant; choosing the wrong material in oil paint is problematic. I would not want to waste Benjamin Moore white paint or whatever paint color you have; it changes color or peels after drying.

Most use a water-based paint for a distressed look to wood to suit country and farmhouse kitchens. However, they are not as durable long term as the oil version. Latex paint may be inexpensive, but these paints cannot handle the moisture and temperature changes in the kitchen.

carpenter at work in a workshop shaving and sanding kitchen cabinet door

Do I need to sand wood kitchen cabinets before painting

There is a stigma that sanding takes too long and makes a mess, so I get the desire to skip the sanding process. On whether sanding is essential before painting, most experts are saying yes because it provides the best results for a smooth paint job. The ones that say no all speak of an alternative: liquid deglosser. 

The ones who prefer to skip have strategic reasons. Sanding removes the old finish and exposes bare wood to moisture, which harms wood. Another reason is that it is unnecessary for all wood types.

For example, ready-to-paint cabinetry and unfinished wood are pre-sanded, and both can skip straight to the primer and coats of paint. The cabinet frames not on this list (existing shine, paint, stain, damage, or peeling) require sanding or the deglosser alternative.

If you choose the alternative, a deglosser with a scrubbing sponge removes dirt, dust, grime, and grease-like sandpaper in liquid form. The duo creates an even, rough surface for paint adhesion and maintains the existing finish. An alternative to liquid deglosser or liquid sander is mineral spirits.

The first rule of cabinet repainting is a clean and dry surface. There is no skipping this step, so I would dive right in and use sandpaper or scrub it with a deglosser.

The hard work will pay off.

What sandpaper should I use for my kitchen cabinets

It depends on what you wish to accomplish. Sandpaper differentiates by grit, and the grit level ranges from coarse to smooth. The numbers are between 24 and 1,000

The high numbers are the finer grits, producing a smoother finish than sandpaper with a lower number. The low numbers scrape off more chunks from the surface than the higher numbers, and I would have more than one grit of sandpaper to smooth out the surface of the cabinet.

What grit works for a wood painting project? For the first time, use 120-grit sandpaper before priming. I would grab a higher number after priming, a higher number after the first coat of paint, and a higher number after the second coat of paint. 

How do you sand kitchen cabinets without making a mess

The work location is one component. I would not sand anywhere in the living space as particles fly anywhere and land everywhere. An empty shed, a barn with no animals, a backyard, or an enclosed garage with no vehicles are good choices.

Prep the workstation by covering the table, seating area, and floor with a damp rag. That will catch landing particles and make cleanup easy. However, an appropriate sanding instrument will reduce the mess.

Sandpaper, a block sander, and a sander machine are messy. To cut down on it, use a sander machine with a vacuum attached. As you sand, the vacuum will clean it up, reducing the mess to clean up when the sanding is complete. 

The type of sandpaper will determine the amount of mess to clean up. Choose a grit with a high number to create less mess than a low number. Also, focus on sanding small sections at a time.

Another thing to consider is how hard you use the sanding instrument. Light sanding does a marvelous job of creating smooth surfaces. Heavy sanding takes off too much material, causing an unnecessary mess.

What is the easiest way to sand kitchen cabinets

A sanding block is a simple tool to sand kitchen cabinets down for a smooth finish. The easiest way is using a sanding block and moving it along the grain of the wood. Removing the cabinet from the hinges is unnecessary, but you do need to remove the new hardware.

I always wipe down the surface with a damp cloth. After it dries, reach for the block and sand down the cabinet in the grain direction.

Then, grab a clean rag to wipe off the dust.

What is the fastest way to sand cabinets

I found a few ways to speed up the sanding process. One way is using two sanders as one machine to cover more ground. The trick is to use both hands and keep them together as you sand the cabinet.

A second way is using an orbit sander with a dust vacuum attachment. As the vacuum collects dust, the machine doubles its speed, and a faster acceleration gets the job done faster.

A third way is buying a larger orbit sander that covers more space. A six-inch orbit sander has a powerful motor and covers more ground than a five-inch or smaller. Conversely, maneuvering a larger sander is more challenging than a smaller version.

The final word

Sanding kitchen cabinets is an essential step in achieving a professional, long-lasting finish. With the right tools, materials, and techniques, you can confidently sand your cabinets without making a mess or compromising on quality.

Remember that preparation is key – protect yourself with proper gear, create a well-organized workstation, and follow the right sanding methods to ensure a smooth surface for priming and painting. By understanding the importance of sanding and the various factors involved, you can transform your kitchen cabinets with ease, breathing new life into your space.

Embrace the process, and enjoy the rewarding outcome of a beautifully refreshed kitchen.

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